This carved wooden mask was made around a hundred years ago by the Ibo people of Nigeria.
While we know a good deal about the British anthropologist who collected it in southern Nigeria, we don't know the names of the Ibo people who made it, saw it, wore it to dance, or made the music for the performance; or of the maiden spirit the mask represents. The mask also tells of the negotiation of gender roles, as the mask was worn by a male dancer to evoke a feminine ideal.
Mark Elliott, Senior Curator (Anthropology) at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, tells us more.
The mask, side view
The mask's current museum label
Painted wooden helmet mask representing a maiden spirit, used in Ibo masquerades where male performers portray the feminine ideal. Northcote Thomas, a student of James Frazer, was the first government anthropologist in Nigeria from 1910. He recorded detailed ethnographic and linguistic information, took hundreds of photographs and made an extensive collection of objects, which he presented to the Museum.
c. & d. Northcote Thomas, 1910s.
Object number: Z 13690
Helmet mask with white face and elaborately decorated hair in black and red. The face has extensive scarification [a form of body modification that involves scratching or etching designs into the skin], some patterns carved in relief and painted black, others simply painted on to the surface. There is a large comb of spikes running from the hairline at the forehead to the rear - the spikes having red tips. The rest of the hair is painted black and carved with spiral patterns, and there are two representations of combs on either side of the head.
These notes are taken from the Bridging Binaries LGBTQ+ tour materials, gathered by Dan Vo.
Ibo maiden spirit mask [Nigeria]
- Customarily appear in village festivals that incorporate dance and narrative, masks commonly have white faces with black designs and elaborate arched headdresses that demonstrate wealth and beauty.
- The mask would have been used in performance by the male dancer to evoke a woman that was the embodiment of the feminine ideal.
- Masks representing women or honouring women's powers performed by men was a means for a community to negotiate female gender roles.
- A unique tension exists though during the performance, as a man puts on a mask and costume depicting a female ancestor, spirit, or character, and he is transformed into a woman while remaining a man. So we here could discuss the split between sex (biological differences) and the social construct of gender.
- This is something that is very interesting to consider in the context of the Ibo people, where gender is fluid allowing female-sexed women to assume male gender roles.
- The transformation of daughters into sons or “male daughters” meant it was possible for them to become socially male heirs of property. Yet they could no longer be married to other men, so to have offspring they took their own wives “female husbands” and if the female husbands had children, the ‘genitors’ would be the male daughter.
- This is about social gender, and while it allowed women sexual autonomy it is not to say that the arrangements were married lesbians (sexual orientation being different).
- These “female daughters” who changed gender roles enjoyed ‘male’ agency and authority and played the role of the father, the protector and provider.
- This might allow us to link to the story of the ‘female king’ of Igbo Ahebi Igbabe (died 1948) who was the first and only female warrant chief in colonial Nigeria, who achieved commanding heights but met her demise by exceeding the limits of Igbo gender flexibility - and it all came down to a mask.
- As a young teenager Ahebi was offered as a living sacrifice to the goddess Ohe for an unspecified crime committed by her father. This meant she would be a cult dedicated “wife”.
- Ahebi though was strong willed and independent and ran away from Igalaland and established herself as a prostitute (not a position of abject scorn but of recognised autonomy) and then increasingly successful as an entrepreneur, establishing important economic and political connections, including the King Attah of Igala and the British colonial officers who were subjugating Igboland under indirect rule.
- Operating as a go between for the British Ahebi was installed as warrant chief and from the Attah the male title of eze, therefore becoming both a man and king.
- Backed by the British, Ahebi’s palace became an important local political center and she married many wives, of which it is said many were seeking sanctuary from abusive husbands
- What undid Ahebi was a desire to consolidate her power through spiritual and ritual means. It is said “it is forbidden for a woman to control a masked spirit”, which is what Ahebi tried to do. She had a male mask created in her name and sought to found a new royal patrilineage (line of descent traced through the paternal line) in her name. As she approached the chief priest in a ritual he had it seized and destroyed, a symbolic gesture that also ended her reign. In the trial that followed the British turned on her and sided with the elders.
- Ahebi did not trust that she society would accord her a fitting burial, so she oversaw her own funeral rites on a massive scale suited to a titled man. It included animal sacrifices, gunfire and glorious music as well as the necessary ritual symbols required to show that King Ahebi died a gendered man.
- This final attempt to inaugurate a patrilineage in her name and become a male ancestor, was thwarted as Ahebi was eventually deified as a goddess.
Adamma: A Contemporary Igbo Maiden Spirit (Haufbauer and Reed 2003)
Men Portraying Women: Representations in African Masks (Cameron 1998)
Queer Crossings: Kinship, Marriage, and Sexuality in Igboland and Carriacou (Apter 2017)